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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame wins second-consecutive national championship

Winning one national championship is difficult enough. Two-straight moves you into elite company. Notre Dame’s joined Columbia-Barnard and Penn State as one of three schools to repeat on the national stage with their second-straight title, cementing itself in the history books as one of the top programs.

Despite coming into the season with a target on its back as the No. 1 ranked team, the road to the title was not without its obstacles. Since the NCAA’s adoption of a combined men’s and women’s format with all three weapons in 2000, the Irish had been unable to repeat as champions. Additionally, all four of their national titles since 2000 came in years when the women’s field closed the competition.

Irish head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said heading into the season his coaching staff challenged the team to accept these historical obstacles and the loss of several key leaders from last year’s team to rise to the occasion.

A relatively light first half of the season that included only one team dual, during which the women swept the field and the men defeated all opponents except Ohio State, was followed by a string of tough matchups throughout January and February. During this stretch of the regular season, the women went 22-1, picking up 11 top-10 wins, with their only loss coming at the hands No. 2 Columbia. Meanwhile, the men earned a 16-5 record, resulting in a drop from their top ranking.

Kvaratskhelia said regardless of the outcome of the regular season meets, his team never got rattled.

“We only focused on the day, whether it came to competitions or practice,” he said. “We never talked about down the road. Sometimes it felt like we weren’t celebrating those small wins enough but the real focus was on how that particular event will prepare us for the ultimate competition.”

A second-place finish by both teams at the ACC championship set the stage for the NCAA championships in University Park, Pennsylvania.

“The first [championship] was pure jubilation,” Kvaratskhelia said. “The second one was just about getting to the finish line.”

Despite being soundly defeated by Duke in the ACC championships, the Irish were able to qualify the maximum of 12 athletes. As one of three teams to do so, they were in the best position to compete to defend their title. The men entered the dual seeded fourth and led by individual conference champions, senior sabreur Jonah Shainberg and freshman foilist Nick Itkin.

Kvaratskhelia said the assumption was that the girls had to give them enough of a lead for the men to hold on, but when it came down to it, the men increased the lead.

The Irish shared the lead on the first with Columbia and managed to extend their lead over the Lions and host, Penn State. The women closed the second day with five All-Americans, including three first-team honorees. However, the Irish were finally able to relax on Saturday when the men tallied 10 wins. Their 17-point cushion proved useful when sophomore epeeist Ariel Simmons clinched the 10th program title in his third place finish.

The biggest individual takeaway for Notre Dame came at the hands of Itkin, who defeated the field in dominant fashion.

“No one even came close,” Kvaratskhelia said. “ ... [He] proved freshmen are able to come in and win it all.”

Despite losing a solid senior class, he said he’s not too concerned about the future of the program.

“When it becomes a habit, it’s a good thing,” Kvaratskhelia said. “It’s always been the expectation here.”